Judges 7-12 essentially contain the stories of two judges: Gideon and Jephthah (though Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon and Abdon get a mention).
These are two fantastical stories - while reading them, at several points, I found myself snorting incredulously - "How could this have happened? This is ridiculous/outrageous/unbelievable."
Which, if this is my reaction, it has been the likely reaction of many others...which is probably one of the reasons that they have endured through time...they are the kind of stories you don't forget...they are messy stories - not fairy tales. Since truth is stranger then fiction, I don't lightly dismiss these legends as fictitious. These stories were passed on generation by generation orally, so there is likely some form of story alteration that has occurred. In our culture we are obsessed with accurate details down to the nth degree, in their culture the focus was on the event that happened, not on recounting all the small details of the story accurately. Nowadays we might call it exaggeration, in their day they called it storytelling.
All that to say, I believe these stories really are rooted in real life, but they are on such a grand scale that they have taken on legendary status - which means that people all over the world, in different ages can read it and see themselves in the story, they can see the humanity of the story, they can see God's real interaction with complicated men and women.
In reading the the legend of Gideon, I am struck by his vanity, his Moses-like doubt, his delegating of executions, his idol-bashing and idol-erecting, his bad son Abimelek (whose name could be loosely translated "my father a king").
In reading the tale of Jephthah I am struck by the details that are given about his life: his mother is a prostitute, his half brothers kick him out of the village, this family requests him to come back when they need a military leader, the Spirit of the LORD comes upon him (like it did Gideon) and he is victorious in battle (like Gideon) - but he makes a stupidly rash vow. This vow is very controversial - he said that he would offer as a burnt offering the first thing that came through his front door if God did indeed grant this victory to him. (As I write this I find myself getting very angry at this man - what the heck did he think would come out that door other then his ONLY daughter? His pet dog? His little chickens? His waddling ducks?...)
His daughter comes dancing out that door celebrating his victory - and Jepthah is crushed...and in the end kills his one and only beloved daughter. How stupid.
And then I think of Ted Haggard. Jimmy Swaggert. Jim Bakker. And all the other Christian leaders that have had the Spirit of the LORD upon them, only to do something really really foolish, stupid and harmful. Apparently being chosen by the LORD for a special task doesn't keep you immune from idiotness. Why did God choose these kind of men to lead his people?